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Senators Blast "Discriminatory" Ban On Gay Men Giving Blood And Urge New Rules

The lawmakers say blood donors should be denied based on personal risk factors for HIV, not their sexual orientation.

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Sen. Tammy Baldwin, center, accompanied by Sen. Chris Murphy, left, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, right, are among the senators sending a letter to the FDA on Monday.
AP / Andrew Harnik

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, center, accompanied by Sen. Chris Murphy, left, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, right, are among the senators sending a letter to the FDA on Monday.

Two-dozen U.S. senators on Monday will urge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to scrap a policy that bans blood donations from many gay men, saying that the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando last week underscored how the policy discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation.

“The atrocities in Orlando are now understood to be the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, where 49 victims were killed and another 53 were wounded, most of them critically,” said a copy of the letter, led by Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, which was provided to BuzzFeed News.

“Yet, some of those most touched by this tragedy — members of the LGBT community, who are especially eager to contribute to the response effort — are finding themselves turned away,” said the letter to the FDA commissioner, from 23 Democrats and one Republican.

"We are steadfastly committed to ending the FDA’s discriminatory policy."

Current FDA guidance bans blood donations from men who have had sex with another man in the preceding 12 months — a policy the Senators call “a de facto lifetime ban for many healthy gay and bisexual men.”

They say the Orlando tragedy “shines an ever sharper spotlight” on the needs for a policy that rejects potential blood donors based on risky personal behaviors, which could increase risk of HIV, rather than rejecting people solely for their sexual orientation.

As BuzzFeed News reported last week, more than 100 members of the U.S. House plan to send a similar letter to the FDA this week.

The FDA’s guidelines on blood donations were first approved in the 1980s during the AIDS outbreak. At the time, they banned men who had had sex with a man anytime since 1977, among other individuals with high risk factors — including sex workers and intravenous drug users.

The FDA relaxed that guidance in December as it applied to men who have sex with men, so it currently applies to those who have been sexually active within the previous 12 months. When it relaxed the guidance, an FDA official said the agency would revisit the policy as more data becomes available to consider risk-based assessments.

In their letter Monday, the senators ask for an update on the current policy’s implementation and urge the agency “to develop better blood donor deferral policies that are grounded in science, based on individual risk factors, don’t unfairly single out one group of individuals, and allow all healthy Americans to donate.”

“Based on advances in science and blood screening and safety technology,” the letter adds, “we expect that the new, one-year deferral policy is just the first step toward ending discrimination against [men who have sex with men] in our donor deferral policies."

Read the full letter:

June 20, 2016

Robert M. Califf, MD

Commissioner

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

10903 New Hampshire Ave.

Silver Spring, MD 20993-0002

Dear Commissioner Califf,

We write to express our concerns with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) discriminatory blood donation policy for men who have sex with men (MSM), which has been highlighted by the tragic mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. As you know from previous correspondence, we are steadfastly committed to ending the FDA’s discriminatory policy that prohibits many healthy MSM from donating blood and moving to policies that secure our nation’s blood supply in a scientifically sound manner based on individual risk.

We appreciate your willingness to engage in discussions on the MSM deferral policy in the past. We also acknowledge the important step that FDA took last December to institute a new one-year deferral policy for MSM after the last sexual contact, replacing the long-standing lifetime deferral. While we support this step forward, a time-based deferral that is not based on individual risk remains discriminatory.

The atrocities in Orlando are now understood to be the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, where 49 victims were killed and another 53 were wounded, most of them critically. During times of tragedy, the American people are quick to demonstrate their resiliency and mobilize in solidarity with victims and affected communities. We have witnessed that compassion as Floridians quickly lined up to donate blood for the wounded. Yet, some of those most touched by this tragedy—members of the LGBT community, who are especially eager to contribute to the response effort—are finding themselves turned away. Due to the FDA’s current MSM deferral policy, many healthy gay and bisexual men remain prohibited from donating needed blood.

This tragedy shines an ever sharper spotlight on the need to move to a donor deferral policy based on individual risk factors. Based on advances in science and blood screening and safety technology, we expect that the new, one-year deferral policy is just the first step toward ending discrimination against MSM in our donor deferral policies. A one-year deferral continues to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes about an entire group of individuals, and remains a de facto lifetime ban for many healthy gay and bisexual men.

In light of these tragic events, and given that it has been nearly 6 months since you announced the new one-year deferral policy, we respectfully request an update on your implementation efforts, including FDA’s engagement with local blood centers to ensure capacity building and operationalization, engagement with the LGBT community, and work to support future changes to the donor deferral policy. We urge you to move swiftly to not only implement the new policy, but also to develop better blood donor deferral policies that are grounded in science, based on individual risk factors, don’t unfairly single out one group of individuals, and allow all healthy Americans to donate.

Your attention to this important issue is deeply appreciated and we respectfully request a response by June 30, 2016.

Sincerely,

Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Patty Murray (D-WA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).